Christoph Eschenbach Ushers In A New Era For National Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach i i

Christoph Eschenbach, in concert Thursday night, with the National Symphony Orchestra. Margot Ingoldsby Schulman/NSO hide caption

itoggle caption Margot Ingoldsby Schulman/NSO
Conductor Christoph Eschenbach

Christoph Eschenbach, in concert Thursday night, with the National Symphony Orchestra.

Margot Ingoldsby Schulman/NSO

The Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington, D.C. was packed with anticipation last night. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach led his very first subscription concert as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. We were all anxious to hear him get down to business after his deluxe, opening gala last Saturday — flanked by stars like soprano Renee Fleming and pianist Lang Lang.

Now the real music-making begins, and the speculation about just what kind of leader Eschenbach will be. It's curious that he has signed on not only as music director of the NSO but also of the entire Kennedy Center, giving him more overall programming power.

Eschenbach and the NSO might just need each other right now. It could be argued that they could each use a little reputation makeover.

Since former music director Leonard Slatkin left back in June, 2008, the NSO has been rudderless, and hasn't escaped criticism for its less than perfect performances. The orchestra needs a permanent leader who can spruce up the playing.

Eschenbach too, could reinvent himself in Washington. By improving the NSO (like he did in the 1990s with the Houston Symphony) he could polish what some might call a tarnished reputation. After only five years at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eschenbach's contract was not renewed. It left a bad taste in his mouth and he said he'd never take on another music director job. But here he is.

So, how was the concert? The NSO sounded surprisingly agile and accurate in a recent piece by the young German composer Matthias Pintscher. His Herodiade-Fragmente is a complex, bracing, 25-minute piece for soprano and huge orchestra, with strings subdivided like a jigsaw puzzle, creating giant sheets of sound, aided by a beefed up percussion section.

Christoph Eschenbach acknowledges the orchestra

Christoph Eschenbach acknowledges the National Symphony Orchestra at Thursday night's concert. Margot Ingoldsby Schulman/NSO hide caption

itoggle caption Margot Ingoldsby Schulman/NSO

Perhaps it was something of a shot across the bow — Eschenbach announcing that we should get used to hearing plenty of contemporary music like this. Indeed, before the concert began, he addressed the audience, saying that the art of today is "as important as the air we breathe." Years ago, Slatkin tried championing American contemporary music with the NSO. Maybe we'll get the European side of that with Eschenbach.

"More power to Eschenbach for daring to take a stand for contemporary music," Anne Midgette, classical music critic of the Washington Post, told me after the show. She wrote a thoughtful review, outlining a few criticisms for evening's main attraction — Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. Yes, there were a few fuzzy moments in the ensemble, a few missed opportunities, but there was also plenty of raw excitement, too.

"The program seemed to signal all of Eschenbach's idiosyncrasies upfront," Midgette said. "Expect him to continue to draw on his familiar cadre of artists, to follow his own artistic tastes, and, if we can judge from tonight, to offer performances of the standard repertory that focus more on feeling than on technical polish."

Directing a symphony orchestra is not an easy job. Eschenbach, like any music director new to an orchestra will be energetically scrutinized. It'll certainly be fascinating to follow the relationship between the new maestro and the NSO as it unfolds. There will be the inevitable ups and downs, and hopefully plenty of great music in between.

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